The back of the napkin pitch is that My Dinner with Andre is a filmed conversation between Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory over a fantastic dinner. While Wallace Shawn has gone on to need no introduction, Andre Gregory is mostly known to people my age as the guy who had dinner with Wallace Shawn. He was an experimental theatre director and actor who had an existential crisis and went a-wandering, and when he came back, this film is more or less what he had to say about it. Now, there is a lot of postmodern-o-rama going on with the extent to which Wally and Andre are or are not playing characters or themselves--that's the sort of thing one expects, really, from an experimental director. In the end, I'm not sure it's even on the top ten list of important things about this film.
Now, when I first saw Andre I was about 20, and I adored it. I was practically slackjawed through the whole thing. I had just never seen anything like it, and it was a secret ambition of mine (and maybe stil is, I can't tell, ambitions are like old teeth, sometimes you lose them and you don't notice until you stick our tongue into the place they used to be and they're gone) to make a movie like that, but with two people my age, in my world. Because Andre is most definitely not of my world, and a product of its time. In many ways it is hopelessly dated. In many ways it is not. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
My Dinner with Andre was made in 1981, which is really only a decade off of the most turbulent part of the sixties, and in many ways, the movie is about a major figure of that era dealing with existential PTSD. It's about trying to grab ahold of some kind of authentic experience that feels real, in the wake of all that, in a world that no longer contains that sense of revolution, but capitulation. Andre's argument is basically about seeking out experience that forces you out of yourself, into other states of consciousness. Wallace likes his coffee and his electric blanket and finds reality there.
Now, when I was 20, I thought Andre was awesome and Wallace was a tool. I think now that teenage years, at least for a certain brand of American teen, is a microcosm of the sixties--it's when you sleep around and do drugs and experiment with religion and sometimes magic, and are convinced you personally are going to change the world. Early twenties, too, I guess. But coming off my personal sixties I felt like Andre spoke for me to some extent, trying to recapture that intensity of feeling. I don't think it's an accident that Andre Gregory was a young man in the sixties, so that his nostalgia is wrapped up in longing for the vigor and fever pitch of a younger man.
But when I watched it again while living in Japan, I was horrified by Andre's position and much more sympathetic to Wallace. Of course this is part of why the movie is so amazing, even if its content is problematic--there's so much in there. I found myself disgusted by a rich man sitting there with his rich man's food telling me what was real and what wasn't, that I had to go to Bulgaria and make the peasants trip out in the forest with me just to have a fleeting sensation of authenticity (nevermind the hellacious cultural privilege involved in hauling villagers with shit to do into your personal pantomime) and lookig down his nose at his friend's ability to find the sublime in a cup of coffee and the ability to stay warm in the winter. Gregory is a bit of an adrenaline junkie, I think, seeking that spiritual high over and over, burning out his brain to maintain it, when really, you can't live all your life on those heights, especially if there is a cost to other humans to get you there. Of course Wallace Shawn, though less well-off, was no less privileged--can you imagine these days making any kind of living as a little-known playwright in New York? It was another New York in 1981, certainly, when the cold was a serious issue, and everything darker and stranger, more apocalyptic. But during that same era. Samuel Delany was experiencing the sublime in gay theater houses, so even there I'm not too moved by these two icons of cultural hegemony moaning about the death of the sixties in their high-class restaurant and saying shit like:
You see, I think it’s quite possible that the nineteen-sixties represented the last burst of the human being before he was extinguished. And that this is the beginning of the rest of the future now, and that from now on there’ll simply be all these robots walking around, feeling nothing, thinking nothing. (Andre)
I mean, holy shit. That looks so much worse in print than it sounds coming out of a doe-eyed, empathetic actor's mouth. I can't think of anything more emblematic of the worst of those Boomer excesses of arrogance and solipsism than the idea that after 1969, humanity itself was extinguished and nothing else that ever happened was real or important, and everyone from then on, even people not lucky enough to be born at that precise moment/place/class that would make them eligible to participate in those counter-cultural movements are unreal, unhuman robots. Wow. I mean, it sort of takes the wind out of you. I was 2 years old when this movie came out. What does that make me? Unthinking, unfeeling? And what a way to think of the future, as a wasteland utterly incapable of living up to the past? Even just 12 years past?
I don't even think they're talking about the social revolutionary air of the sixties. Mainly what they talk about is art, and theatre, and their souls--they don't often use the word, but that's what they mean. What it means to be human. If it means tripping out in the woods in eastern europe or writing plays in NYC while hoping a cold cup of coffee is still good the next morning. And to think they don't even know how bad the 80s are going to get, about AIDS or the death of manufacturing or Iran Contra. They don't even know what New York is going to look like in five years, let alone what it looks like now. They are insulated from so much by their money, their race, their privilege.
And part of me wants to say: what you boys need is the internet.
They wouldn't agree, at least then. I think they'd be horrified by the internet, in the way that folk often are, because they see the ways it disconnects us, and changes our mental processes, and makes us feel unreal. Those are dangers, yes. We unfeeling, unthinking robots create such cold things. But it also creates the islands of light that Andre talks about, those secret, real/unreal spaces where we can be so human and genuine. And it puts you in contact with people outside the bubble of privilege those two lived in. It is an intense bubble--at one point Andre talks about his wife and how she stays home and takes care of their kids while he galavants around the world looking for ways to feel real. Again, holy shit. It must be nice, to have no responsibilities to your children or marriage, (but still have them! It's not like it's not a choice!) and a maid to take care of your life while you follow your douchey bliss. These days she'd blog about it, and we'd all know their entire marriage before the film came out.
I think a lot of us worry about...not necessarily feeling real, but feeling rooted, grounded, part of the world. Part of something. It's not unimportant, the crises they're talking about. And do I feel real and grounded when I feed my ducks and tie my blueberry plants to stakes with some yarn I spun myself? Yes. But no more real than when I hold a book I wrote in my hands for the first time, or talk to a room full of people about it, or make a connection through this blog. Art and coffee. It's possible to feel ok in the future, to not be a robot, and these days I feel like this comic sums up so much about life in the future that was completely unpredicatable in 1981--and maybe if it were two science fiction writers talking instead of two uber-realist playwrights, they wouldn't feel so hopeless, so helpless in the face of the oncoming robot-soul apocalypse. I do think science fiction prepares you to be strong in the future. Maybe that's its best destiny.
And of course, shallowly, I want to have erudite amazing dinners like that. But really, I prefer my world to theirs. Even with all the badness in it--1981 was not a bad-free year. Even with everything, I do not want their sixties, or their world.